Friday, May 29, 2009

The Paris of South America: A travelogue

This is my 1st attempt at a travelogue and so it may be more detailed than folks care about, but it certainly allows me to keep our memories.

My lovely wife Saritha and I decided to get down to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a few days to get away from it all. It was a wonderful trip that started at Dulles International on 5/21 a late Thursday night direct flight to Buenos Aires. We got on a red eye about 10pm and were in Buenos Aires at about 9am the following morning.

Day 1 Friday 5/22 (pics);
Landing was smooth that even Saritha commented. We landed 20 mins ahead of schedule, walked out of the plane with masks. Yes, the Argentines decided that all visitors should don masks to reduce the risk of the swine flu. So masks on, multiple entry forms completed we walked out of the plane in to the immigration lines, which took less than 5mins to be done and out to collect our bags. Then on outside to exchange money. Money exchange is tricky in Argentina since there are limited places that do it and since counterfeit currency is a real menace. Thankfully we do not experience any. With new Argentine peso and feeling 3.5times richer, we went to look for transportation to take us to our downtown hotel. Folks at the information were particularly friendly and so based on information we received, we found a shuttle service from Manuel Tienda that was about 40% cheaper and equally convenient as a taxi. These folks drive in to central bus station in downtown Buenos Aires (San Martin) and then take you by car to the final destination. We arrived at our hotel (Plaza Marriott) in San Martin that was celebrating its 100 yrs and home to one of the top 9 bars in the world (more about that later). We got an early check in and were out of the hotel by 1pm. The weather was beautiful, sunny and 70F in early winter (while beautiful, very worrying from a global climate perspective). There was classical band playing infront of San Martin plaza at the beginning of Florida Ave with close to a hundred appreciators. We grabbed a sandwich from a take away place called Aroma on Av Florida and found a city tour operator. City tour has been our standard form of day 1 recon of any new place we visit in collaboration with a travel book like lonely planet, it gives you a good idea of what we can visit again indepth. A $20/person fare gives us a 4.5 hours tour of both south and northern part of this beautiful city aptly called the Paris of South America. The boulevards are wide (as many as 6 lanes on each side), lovely architectures with tall doors and windows set in the classical European patterns, the buildings are old giving them an even more dignified look. Amongst the stops were the pink presidential palace at the foot of the Plaza de Mayo where we stared at the 2nd floor balcony at length trying to visualize Eva Peron singing "Don't cry for me Argentina". Other spots included La Boca; the bohemian fun town, Recoleta; including the cemetery were Eva Peron is consecrated, then to San Telmo which is known for weekend fairs, Palermo and finally to Peurto Madero; the newly built water front touristic restaurants which is where we went for our 1st dinner. In fact we walked down from the hotel, about a mile or so...proving that BA is a fairly safe city, just need to be aware of your surroundings. We also booked a day trip to go to Colonia in Uruguay by bottom on Sunday. Dinner was all right, very tourist, non of the Argentine flavours except for a small bottle of Malbec (Faber) we polished. One thing to remember is to always have the restaurants call a cab for you vs hailing one on the street, which can be very dicey the folks tell me. Cabs are quite cheap, $1 minimum and a 20min ride could cost up to $6.

Day 2, Saturday May 23(pics)
We wake up late, but rested surely. Breakfast in the hotel, standard international fare, nothing exotic...however I did find a caramel spread; very nice and worth a taste or more. So now we are looking 3 specific things we want to, a. A trip to an estancia (ranch) to meet some gauchos (cowboys), a tango show off-course and trip to Tigre'. The concierge at the Marriott while was helpful it did not quiet get us the tours we were looking for so we stroll down Florida avenue and around and find a tourism office that looks credible and a very friendly and helpful agent. Banks are closed here on Saturday and Sunday and so money exchange is not going to happen, however everyone is happy taking US $'s. About 2pm after a quick take away sandwich again, we are picked up to go to Tiger, north of BA on the banks of Rio De La Plata. We drive to Maipu in the province of Buenos Aires (the province of BA is different from the federal district of BA, the capital) to catch the tourist train that costs 12 times more than the local train (1 peso vs 12peso) to San Sidro. Its a short train ride about 15-20mins if that much. We hang out in San Sidro for about 30mins eating gelato @ Freddo (its worth a try, especially the banana creme), visiting the local cathedral (like any former Spanish colony, there is no shortage of cathedral's) and the fare of crap, uh I mean antiques and other sundries. Then we get on a bus to drive to Tigre which is about 15mins away and then hop on to a catamaran for a 1 hour ride down the river. The banks have very cute homes and the guide tells me they cost between 30-40K US.....yeah I am thinking what you are thinking ;~). Bus ride back in to BA through easy traffic and we are now ready for dinner. Now dinner is a big family and friends thing in Argentina and does not start until 9-10pm (bit of a challenge for me since that is bed time for me). For dinner we head to La Troupe about 20mins by taxi from our hotel in Plaza San Martin. Javier Milstein who manages the restaurant is the quintessential host, who ordered our wines and dinner....all very delicious. This is a typical BA restaurant sans tourists and out of the way, it has trees that grow from inside the restaurant that shoots out of the roof. I definitely recommend the restaurant. The parilla or grilled meats typical come with 10-15 little sides and are replaced with every course. The Malbec's especially from the Mendoza region....oooh, they are giving the Shiraz that I love so dearly a run for their money. Meals are fairly inexpensive and this one cost us about $40 which would have been, I am guessing about $120 or so at home. Taxi ordered by the restaurant takes us back to the hotel, where we find our selves at the Plaza Bar. Apparently Forbes Magazine chose the Plaza Bar as one of the top 9 hotel bars in the I am really not sure why that is. Again not expensive at all, couple of Quilmes (Argentine beer), wines & tips set us back only about $20.

Day 3, Sunday May 24(pics)
An hour's boat ride on the Buquebus ship at Puerto Madero gets us to Colonia in Uruguay. Immigration is in Argentina for Uruguay and vice versa. Its funny to have the Argentine immigration office stamp our passports and then give it to the Uruguayan immigration office sitting right next to him for his stamps. Never seen that before and all so simple and efficient. The ship is big and based on the safety sheet (yes I read that
on boats since I can't swim) I figure it can carry about 600 people. Uneventful on the Rio De La Plata which is supposedly the widest river in the world and it certainly seemed liked that gets us to Colonia, Uruguay little past noon. We walk to the historic district through very quiet and quaint streets. There is a slight wind, the trees are shedding in this late fall early winter time, stray dogs lie still in the warm sun as do the few Uruguayans....beautiful all around. Historic Colonia is a typical Spanish town, pretty little houses, bunch of ruins, couple of plaza's (got to have those) and yes couple of cathedral's too. We wander around absorbing this beauty and I wonder why I should not just stay....still don't have that answer and yet I am back home! Its lunch time and so we select this cute restaurant on the water and seat ourselves (you generally seat yourselves unless its crowded and there is a host/hostess around)....10mins go by and nobody comes around, so we leave. Repeat restaurant 2 and 3....perhaps we don't have the patience or were hungry or just don't get that there is no rush in Uruguay & for good reason. Me on the other hand have to be places....yeah right!!! Anyways restaurant 4 greets us and gets us a menu in minutes, sandwich and pizza and big bottle of beer in 10mins, all very tasty & costs us $11 with a handsome tip.....Boy!!! if this recession does not correct fast, we are heading back to Colonia for sure....for good that is. More wandering, but this time towards the ship for a 5.30 cast off. In BA by 6.30pm, walk back to the hotel that is about 1.5miles away. The trip to Uruguay is about 200peso/person, perhaps a little high for an afternoon away, but we enjoyed it very much and highly recommend it. Late night dinner at La Cabrera in the Palermo district which is again not a usual touristy restaurant rather a local eatery. While most restaurants in BA do take reservations, La Cabrera will only do so for an 8.30 pm sitting. Since we were planning on doing what most Porteno's do, i.e eat after 9.30pm we arrived at the restaurant without reservation. The hostess very kindly took our names down and offered champagne while we waited on the sidewalk with about 10 others who had arrived there before us. She offered us some hors d'oeuvre still on the sidewalk. While we waited and new guests arrived, we are surprised by the way folks were being seated, there was really no pattern or logic. So close to an hour in to our wait and 2 glasses of very bad tasting champagne, Saritha decides to act. She goes in and sits in the foyer and tells the hostess she is tired, all while the hostess is telling everyone it would take another 30 mins. The hostess quickly returns and seats us!..moral: If you want a seat in a BA restaurant, feign tiredness. The meal was good, the wine was excellent and the desert of chocolate ice cream and truffles had me die and go to heaven. This was probably the priciest meal we had in BA and cost about $50, which would cost us $150 at home. Oh just to clear the air, the reason I did not catch a cab to go elsewhere in a huff for making us wait for an hour was that we were having fun talking to other guests, commenting on an older gentlemen make a meal of the hors d'oeuvre, reused peanuts and olives, the Aussie bloke who was the only one in shorts on a chily do try La Cabrera, but know you know what to expect. Oh by the way that hostess was so calm and smiling all the time and did not let any pressure get to her. I wish I could learn that from her. Again restaurant got us a cab to get back....clearly a standard operating procedure.

Day 4, Monday May 25(pics)
Yipppieeeeeee its time to go check the gaucho's. Well the reality is that there are at least 2 kinds of estancia's....the real ones and the touristy ones. If you are in BA and not in Patagonia, you get stuck with the touristy ones and that is where we ended. About 90KM/60miles from BA, Don Silvano is glorified hay ride with teenagers dressed as gaucho's giving us horse back rides. They did serve some wicked empanada's and I regret not over indulging them. They have a large grill at the back where they grilled a variety of meats and sausages. The lunch had a variety show of songs and dances from the local artists that included a tango show. Our group had folks from the US, Guatemala and Chile. Also at lunch was a gentleman tourist from Nepal, apparently the 1st at Don Silvano, and they had him go up the stage and sing a song. It sounded like a Nepali nursery rhyme, but I give him credit for singing it and the crowd loved it. Interestingly we kept bumping in to this guy at the hotel, airport and he also landed at Dulles....hmmm. The elderly lady sitting next to me from Indianapolis who while kept thanking for taking care of her as I poured her wine and got her food, argued vehemently about how President Obama was not good for the country, tsk tsk some people never know what a vacation is. After lunch they took us back and showed us some gaucho stuff like herding horses, racing horses, tripping get the picture. If you go to BA, skip this $60 waste of time. Also remember for those of us returning to the US, we get to go to "special customs" since we were on a farm with farm animals.
Another uneventful drive back to BA and we get picked up to go to a Tango show. We get a 1 hour tango class, which was fun and it reaffirmed that both Saritha and I have a pair of left foot each :). They serve us dinner and some cheap cruddy Malbec. At the table with us is a teacher from the DC area on vacation and a guy from India on a world trip. He claimed he has traveled all of Africa, Asia and 2 months in South America...I say claims because when the teacher said she was from Washington DC, he asked "Where is that". I pray god be with him if he is truly traveling the world. The Tango lasted a little over an hour & "yawn" and well we are glad we did it, else we would have returned home wondering. Its late, almost past midnight and time to hit the sack.

Day 5, Tuesday May 26(pics)
Time to go home :~( and back to the daily grind. Time has flown but I think I have liked BA. It has been many years since I was in Paris and very briefly, but I see why BA is called the Paris of South America, the wide boulevards, the architecture, the plaza's, the outdoor cafe's, the attitude of the porteño
's (Folks from BA are called Porteño's but careful not call the folks from the province of BA that). We spent most of the day walking around the centro and doing some souvenir shopping, the advantage of beautiful weather and a walking city. At lunch time we went to Cafe Tortoni which is about 150 years old and a gathering spot for the elites to discuss politics etc. While the guide books and people said it was pricey, a lunch of sandwiches, quiche/salad pie, beer, cafe cost us about $15. This cafe is a tourist spot, so there we were clicking pictures and posing. After lunch we wandered to the Plaza de Mayo again and tried to visualize Eva Peron in the pink palace that is today the Presidential office. The plaza is a little decrypt, which is shame considering the President can see it everyday and assume it would bother her to have it cleaned up. We walk through the financial district of BA and find lots and lots and lots of banks whose names I had never heard before. A quiet cathedral in the middle of the money makers catches our attention and we go in to bow our heads and calm ourselves. We head back to the hotel, check out and head to the airport. The taxi ride is about 40 mins during rush hour BA, which surprisingly does not exist. Efficient airport processes, last beer in BA, check email, browse duty free to reaffirm that the priciest shops in the US are cheaper than airport duty free around much of the world, then on to one of the least friendly airlines "United" for the ride back home.

We enjoyed the downtime very much and glad we selected BA for as long as we did. Lovely city, friendly folks, great weather and easy on the pocket book. Ciao as they said in BA to us!


Anonymous said...

funny...quite a bit of details

Saritha said...

Entertaining and funny